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The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse
By James Swanson
Morrow, $27.99, 464pp.
In the modern media era, we have become accustomed to every Democrat presidential candidate being considered smarter, more sophisticated, and urbane and accomplished than his Republican counterpart. From Eisenhower and Stevenson, to Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan and both Carter and Mondale, certainly both Bush presidents and each opponent they faced.
But it started with the very first Republican president, according to the latest compulsively readable history from James Swanson, who burst onto the scene with his terrifically exciting bestseller, Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, which won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.
While Lincoln never stood for election against Jefferson Davis, Swanson thinks that it is likely Davis would have won had he been the Democrat nominee. With Lincoln having reached demigod status in most Americans’ minds now, it’s hard to imagine that by Washington D.C. standards at the time, Davis, an experienced and well-spoken Washington hand, West Point graduate, war hero and successful businessman (even if it took slaves to make it happen) would have been considered a much more accomplished man than a plainspoken backwoods lawyer—with ties to radical freedom lovers.
Talk about the more things change…
Swanson’s latest book Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse takes a more obscure, but nonetheless just as fascinating look at April of 1865 as his huge bestselling debut—and it’s such a great story, and obvious parallel, that I bet it has Civil War historians all over the country slapping their foreheads and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” (Though in lesser hands, it might have come across as grotesque.)
Bloody Crimes follows the last major journeys of Lincoln and Davis—the magnificent funeral procession for the slain president that covered 1,600 miles and attended by millions of Americans; and the flight by Jefferson Davis, trying to slip away unnoticed into Mexico, even as his armies led by first Lee and then Johnston were surrendering.
While one might think that Davis’s flight from capture would easily be the best part of Bloody Crimes, the details of the Lincoln funeral procession are not only fascinating, they are a bit mind-boggling—and may constitute the most ingenious bit of political stagecraft in American history.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arranged for not only the biggest state funeral in nation’s history, he gave much of the rest of the country a chance to join in, with a 1,600 mile train trip with stops in every major city along a circuitous route from Washington D.C. as far northeast as Albany, before heading across the Midwest to Lincoln’s final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
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